Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Thirty-five years ago I was living in Kathmandu, running a language school and teaching English and French to Nepalis while I studied their language. I had previously lived in Bavaria, but this was my first experience living in a truly different environment.
Each day on my way to school I would pass numerous shops along the pedestrian-only streets. In those pre-supermarket days in Kathmandu, each shop sold only one item. One of the shops I passed sold only beads, especially the tiny beads that made up the necklaces worn by almost all Nepali women of the time. Green beads indicated that you were single, red beads meant you were no longer available. (Today if you see a woman in Kathmandu wearing either color, it’s almost a sure sign she’s not from the city.)
Whenever I passed the bead shop in the middle of the day, when there was a siesta-like lull in activity, sauji (“shopkeeper” in Nepali) would be sitting there cross-legged, his unblinking gaze fixed on some indeterminate distant space. His eyes never seemed to blink, his body showed no signs of breathing or movement. He seemed totally at peace with the world, despite his apparent total disconnection from it.
I wondered to myself, “Is he bored?”. In fact, there was (and still is) no word for boredom in the Nepali language. This was one of those lightbulb moments. I realized that when American youth said I’m bored, what they’re really saying is “I need to be entertained, and there’s no entertainment going on right now. Fix it!” One of the keys to the ubiquitous happiness in evidence amongst Nepali children at the time was their contentment with whatever was going on around them at the time, be it work, play, or just doing nothing at all.
Years later, in the 1980s, one began to hear adult Nepalis complaining, “Bore lagyo” (I feel bored). However, when pressed on its meaning, it immediately became clear that they weren’t bored and didn’t understand the meaning of the word. But simply saying those words elevated you to the ranks of the psychologically sophisticated, as only truly modern (i.e. Western) people felt bored. As boredom and other modern ailments have established themselves in recent years, not to mention a Maoist insurgency, happiness has taken a hit, but somehow survives amidst the resilient Nepalis.
Above the Clouds